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Throwback Thursday: The Day the A-Line Died

Coming in with 33% of the votes from our poll, we take a look back at a big trade in Devils history for this throwback. After winning the Stanley Cup in 2000, and finishing as the runner-up in 2001, the A-Line fueled Devils seemed poised to compete for years to come. And then March 19, 2002 happened...

1/3 of the A-Line and one of the men he was traded for.
1/3 of the A-Line and one of the men he was traded for.
Bruce Bennett

The New Jersey Devils were a powerhouse of a team in the early 2000s, finishing the regular season second (points-wise) in the Eastern Conference in 1999-2000 and winning it in 2000-2001.  While still known for being a defense-first team (and for the neutral zone trap) these Devils also had no problem putting the puck into the net.  Led by captain Scott Stevens, an in his prime Martin Brodeur and a trio of youngsters that would become known simply as "The A-Line," the team seemed poised to compete for years.

The Second Cup and Runner-Up

The 1999-2000 NHL regular season was kind to the Devils; they would score 251 goals that season, good enough for second in the league.  Marty Broduer would establish a then career-high 43 wins, with a respectable 2.24 GAA and .910 SV%.  The Devils would be seeded fourth in the postseason; the Devils lost the Conference to the Philadelphia Flyers, and even though they had more points than the Washington Capital and Toronto Maple Leafs, the latter two were division winners, and as such were seeded higher.

New Jersey would meet the Florida Panthers in the first round, and sweep them out in four.  The second round would see them convincingly eliminate the Maple Leafs in six games, with Brodeur posting shut-outs in Games 2 and 6.  Rival Philadelphia would be the Conference Final opponent, and the Devils would take Game 1 before dropping three straight.  On the brink of elimination, the Devils would rally, destroying the Flyers 4-1 in Game 5, before winning Games 6 and 7 by the same close score of 2-1.

The opponent for the Cup would be the Dallas Stars, who were looking to repeat as Stanley Cup Champions from the 1998-99 season; the Devils would have other ideas.  Game 1 was a 7-3 shellacking that would see Dallas goalie Ed Belfour pulled after allowing goals 5 and 6 of the game

Jason Arnott would add the seventh for New Jersey before Dallas would get their second and third to cap the scoring.

Dallas would win Game 2 in New Jersey, but the Devils would strike back winning Games 3 and 4 in Dallas.  Game 5 would see five scoreless periods of hockey before the Stars would score in the third overtime to bring the series back to Dallas for Game 6.  As we all know, the Stars would not come back to New Jersey for a seventh game.  I'll let the extended version of the clip do the talking for me, as it does the moment more justice than I ever could.

The Devils would have a strong regular season again in 2000-01, winning their division by 11 points, and besting the Ottawa Senators by 2 for the Eastern Conference crown.  Patrik Elias would also set the record for "Most Points in a Season by a Devil" with 96, which still stands as the record to this day.  Broduer would put up 42 more wins, with only a slight decline (2.32 GAA, .906 SV%) in stats.

The Devils would start out strong in the postseason, beating the Carolina Hurricanes four games to two.  They would struggle a bit against the Maple Leafs in the second round, but eventually gutted out a 4-3 series win.  The Conference Finals were a bit easier for the Devils; the Pittsburgh Penguins managed to take Game 2, but aside from that the series was all New Jersey and it ended in five games, with Broduer posting back to back shutouts in Games 3 and 4.

The President's Trophy-winning Colorado Avalanche awaited the Devils in the Stanley Cup Finals.  After a 5-0 loss in Game 1, New Jersey woke up, winning Game 2 by a 2-1 score.  They would lose again in Game 3 (3-1) before winning Games 4 (3-2) and 5 (4-1) setting the stage for a Game 6 at home.  It was not to be however, as Colorado would shut New Jersey out again, this time 4-0, before winning the series at home in Game 7 by a score of 3-1.  While the Devils had been defeated, they seemed poised to contend for years to come.  They started off the 2001-2002 campaign strongly enough, before General Manager Lou Lamoriello decided to shake his team up.

March 19, 2002

Despite still being a very strong, winning team, there were rumblings heading up to the trade deadline that Lamoriello was unhappy that the Devils had essentially become a one line team.  He felt there was too much pressure on the A-Line trio and not enough depth on the team.  Jason Arnott at the time had missed the past three games with a back injury, having last played on March 10th against (ironically enough) Dallas, but was getting ready to return for the March 20th game against Chicago; little did he know he would not don the New Jersey red and black again until 8 years later.

Arnott was sent to Dallas along with Randy McKay and their first round pick in the 2002 Entry Draft in exchange for Joe Nieuwendyk and Jamie Langenbrunner.  In essence the Devils had put the nail in the coffin of two lines; the A-Line was without it's A, and Bobby Holik was now the only remaining member of the Crash Line, as Mike Peluso had retired from the NHL at the end of the 1997-98 season.

The Devils did have more depth now, as they had also acquired Stephane Richer for his second stint with the team at the cost of a seventh round pick.  The argument could be made however, that the force that had been the engine of the early 2000s teams had been ripped from the car; the team would finish 6th in the Conference, losing to the Carolina Hurricanes in the first round of the playoffs.

The trade was a huge shock to the fan base at the time; here the Devils had a line of players with great chemistry in the primes of their careers (at the time Arnott was 27, Elias 26 and Sykora the youngest of the group at 25) that provided sustained scoring.  The line led them offensively to back to back Stanley Cup Finals, winning their first appearance and coming within a game of winning another in 2001.  While the deal was technically one older player and a prime player for an older player and a prime player and a pick, there was no telling if Nieuwendyk and Langenbrunner would have the chemistry with any Devils that the A-Line had.

Personally, I don't feel either team really "won" this trade; the first round pick eventually wound up in Buffalo's hands making it moot.  McKay would go on to play one more season for his hometown Montreal Canadiens before retiring.  Arnott would go on to have a respectable career, serving as captain of the Nashville Predators, but another cup would elude him.  Nieuwendyk and Langenbrunner would win the 2003 cup in New Jersey, but Nieduwendyk would leave as an unrestricted free agent during that summer.

Langenbrunner would stay with the team during a period where they did not make it beyond the second round of the playoffs from 2004-2011; he would serve as captain of the Devils from 2007 until his tumultuous exit in 2011, but not before he get to mentor a pair of young players that would go on to help the team to the 2012 Cup Finals..  It could be argued that the Devils won as the trade helped them to a third Stanley Cup, however they would be mired in mediocrity afterward until said 2012 playoff run.  One has to wonder, how would the team had done in the mid 2000s if the A-Line had been kept together?

Your Take

Looking back now, do you think keeping the A-Line together would have led to more sustained success for the Devils?  Would it have been feasible with the salary cap?  Should they have traded Sykora (and drive the final nail in the A-Line coffin) in 2003?  What memories do you have of the Arnott/McKay trade?  Please leave all your thoughts, comments and questions below!